Public Relations Tactics

Loud and Clear: Conducting a Sound Check

February 1, 2017

When Don Murray arrived in the newsroom for his first day on the job as writing coach for the Boston Globe, he turned to his new boss and said: “I can tell you who your three best writers are.”

Then the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work” proceeded to do just that.

“How did you know?” the editor asked.

“Their lips move when they write,” Murray said.

Reading your copy aloud — hearing your words instead of just staring at them — is one of the techniques that separates master writers from the might-have-beens.

“The ear, not the eye, is the final editor,” Murray said.

Do your lips move when you write? Reading your copy aloud will make you a better writer. So perform a sound check.

Benefits of reading aloud

Specifically, it will help you:

1. Reduce errors. Your eyes are such good editors that they can “fix” your copy as they view it. Your ears will catch what your eyes miss.

Students taking remedial writing courses at the City University of New York, for instance, eliminated 60 percent of their grammatical errors by reading their copy aloud, according to Richard Andersen, author of “Writing That Works.”

2. Make your copy conversational. We want it to sound the way we do when we speak — not like a computer spit it out.
Take this sounds-the-way-you-speak passage by Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, calling attention to a great bottom line in his 2006 letter to shareholders: “Below is the tally on our underwriting and float for each major sector of insurance. Enjoy the view, because you won’t soon see another like it.”

3. Make your copy sound better. Reading aloud can smooth out rough passages, reduce fits and starts, and otherwise make your copy flow instead of stutter. It can help you find a voice and tone.

“Effective writing has the illusion of speech without its bad habits,” Murray writes. “The reader hears a writer speaking to a reader. The writing should flow with grace, pace and clarity — not the way we speak but, better than that, the way we should speak.”

4. Write tighter. When you read aloud, your tongue will trip over nine-syllable words; you’ll run out of breath before the ends of long sentences; you’ll stumble over redundancies, jargon and passive voice.

In short, you’ll find all the things you’ve been looking for, but missed, so far in your editing process.

3 ways to write for the ear

To write as you speak:

1. Choose a voice. Decide upfront what’s right for this piece:
Individual or institutional?

Bureaucratic or, as Stacey Cox, manager of internal communications at CenterPoint Energy, calls it: business casual?

“Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?” asks William Zinsser in “On Writing Well.”

Whatever you decide, do decide. Commit to a voice, then stick with it.

2. Write a letter to your mother. Explain what you want to say. You may find that you’ve just said it.

3. Run the “Hey! Did you hear?” test. To make sure your copy’s conversational, say, “Hey! Did you hear?” Then read your copy aloud.

If the rest of your copy sounds as if it could logically follow that introduction, you’re on the right track. If it sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons (“Wah Wah Wah Wah”), then you might want to revise. 

Copyright © 2017 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

Cut Through the Clutter

Would you like to learn more ways to write copy that’s easy to read and understand? If so, join Ann at Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day Master Class on April 6-7 in Washington, D.C., and on Aug. 17-18 in San Francisco. PRSA members: Save $100 with coupon code PRSA17.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.

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